Once a vibrant community with a rich history, Amani was ravaged by the depression. Today, residents face deep poverty, low employment rates and high crime levels. Adding to the problems is a scarcity of healthy food — the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified Amani as a food desert.

Alverno’s School of Business is working to change that. Last fall, MBA students embarked on an ever-expanding partnership among Alverno, Amani United (the neighborhood association) and other stakeholders in the neighborhood to address food scarcity in an economically viable way. The College became involved at the request of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, which had a federal grant to address a number of challenges in Amani and asked Alverno to partner on the food issue.

Initially, both Alverno students and Amani residents were skeptical about how much progress could be made. It was clear to Eileen Sherman, dean of the School of Business, that to succeed Alverno would need to make a long-term commitment to Amani — not to merely sweep in for a semester-long project.

“It was the first time this kind of community effort had been done,” Sherman says. “This was one of those risky projects that was either going to be wildly successful or it was going to tank. There was nothing in the middle.”

She explains that students had to stop and listen before acting. They had to fully understand the needs and attitudes of the Amani community and then develop tools that the neighborhood could use. If one tool didn’t work, another needed to be developed.

“They can’t just go in and say, ‘this is what I was taught and this is what we should do.’ They have to constantly negotiate and learn how processes from class can be put into the real world,” Sherman says.

A year-and-a-half since the project began, Alverno and its students have become trusted partners in the revitalization of the Amani neighborhood. One group in the capstone is now working with Amani United to determine how the group might become a formal 501(c)3 so it could apply for grants. Another group is looking at the notion of a resident-owned food co-op and creating a multi-use building that could house the co-op and the Amani United offices, and offer cooking classes and food education for children.

Meghan Walsh, an MBA student working on the nonprofit status, says the experience has gone far beyond business theory and allowed the students to test all of their research skills, financial knowledge and management competencies.

“It has been amazing to watch my efforts be put to work for the people in the Amani neighborhood,” she says. “It’s a great feeling to help your neighbors make the changes they want to make in their neighborhoods, and this opportunity has given me a hands-on opportunity that will impact the way I lead in my community and workplace now and in the future."

On December 1 at 6 p.m., the School of Business will host an Alverno Forum about the Amani project and connecting the college to the community. Panelists will include John Kordsmeier, Northwestern Mutual; Susan Lloyd, Ziber Family Foundation; Sr. Patricia Rogers, Dominican Center for Women; JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir, The Juice Kitchen; Eileen Sherman, dean of Alverno School of Business; and MBA alums Jaimie Thomas and Sheena Talbert, MBA students Meghan Walsh and Andrea Thompson, and moderator Mike Hostad, founder of the Commons. Register today to join the conversation.